The thesis studies the urban condition formed by labour-intensive industries and mobile capital flux in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD) cities. It takes particular interest in Shenzhen’s urban transformation in relation to its industrial transformation, labour upgrading, social mobility and vocational education in the past ten years. On the one hand, social mobility accelerates the commodification of urban space. The city continues to get reworked under the abuse of relentless mobile capital as a new class of consumers arises from the self-upgraded workers. The new rich centre towards places with better welfare provision. Public welfare such as city parks and better schools get commodified and privatised. On the other hand, the majority of the migrant workers aggregated in the city centre, struggling for opportunity. Spaces for the migrants — e.g., overcrowded urban villages to provide affordable housing and old Danwei housing block centres becoming cheap working-living complexes — self- generated in the leftover urban space side-by-side with highly invested commercial developments. This thesis argues from the angle of social mobility that the dualised landscapes belong to the same system and are formed while marketization privileged some — mainly the more skilled and educated — and marginalised the other. Urban conflict lies in the state’s irresponsibility in providing basic welfare, especially education, to the floating population and the struggle of the migrants to buy their access to basic services that are in return critical to their labour reproduction. Yet these working and living spaces are where, via education interventions, the earnings, social status and lifestyle of the migrant workers can be changed within generations, and new forms of business operations can be formed. Under this context, the thesis studies the potential of using educational architecture project to recreate the urban block as a way to use these leftover urban spaces to drive a city’s transformation and enters a general critique of city-making logic that excessively relies on speculative capital.

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urban landscape of Shenzhen

Dualised urban landscape is formed when migrant workers working in labour-intensive technology businesses or the service sector aggregated in the leftover spaces in the city centre — e.g., overcrowded urban villages that provide affordable housing and old Danwei housing block centres becoming cheap working-living complexes — side-by-side with highly invested commercial developments.

contrasted landscape

The real estate developers presented imagery of the commercial centre versus the actual daily working route of migrant workers who behind the scene supported the prosperity in the commercial centre (right below the high-rise building on the left).

Highly-invested high-rise malls and offices in contrast with the poorly constructed back streets - the human networks, trolley logistics and unregulated food stalls.


Migrant workers buying movies, e-books, and musics from street stalls - photographed by Zhiyou Zhang

Without citizenship in the city, migrant workers have to generate the financial ability to buy their access to basic social services.

social mobility via vocational education

A timeline of a family since moving to Shenzhen in the 1980s. Various vocational educations enabled a series of job changes, income increase and social moving-up.

To the migrant workers, the word ”floating” does not only mean working in the city and returning to their hometown during the new year, but also the fluidity between social class with the opportunities the city provides. Vocational education in this sense is more than just skill upgrading; it becomes become the entry ticket for basic civil rights in the city, including urban welfare.

strategic plan

leftover urban spaces to drive the city’s transformation - strategies in three types of leftover space

design of site 1

old Danwei block centre


different scales of social interaction via education to drive a changing relationship between the state, private developers, the trade and migrant workers's individual micro enterprises.

city scale - built and managed by the state
architecture scale - built and managed by the private developers
community scale public - built by private developers, managed by joint body of commerce

various units of the plots

transformed from the southern Chinese shop-lot type, providing minimum individual spaces for business operation and living activities while maximising their public interfaces. The shop-lot, by regulation, has to sacrifice some commercial area and leave empty a certain size of space to form a frontal arcade. The arcade becomes a public street and provides shelter for people in the rainy days; in this way, it attracts more customers and benefits the individual businesses. Each of the shop-houses has access from the front street for commercial activities and another on the back street for living activities. The proposal transforms this type.

Each unit in the plot is a two-storey unit. One storey is the shop, and the front is a commercial street of 3 meters wide. The other is the apartment, and the back is a living street of 6 meters wide that has shared programmes such as cafes and reading rooms. The streets are formed within the plot by means of regulation in the development of the plot. The scale and the grid of the plots derive from the study of the urban village building type in terms of flexibility in functions including living, warehouses, offices and shops.


nodes as overlapping points of different groups of labour - proposed based on the study of each group’s work pattern, daily schedule and spatial patterns.

The nodes attempt to change the rivalry relationship between the micro businesses to a cooperative one, and thus initiate the change in the form and scale of the business operation. High-rise developments will further sit on top as outgrowth of the new form of enterprises.

The nodes work similarly to the shop-lot model in terms of sacrificing parts of commercial area for shared interest. Detailed design of the nodes and high-rises will be contracted to private developers, following restrictions set up in the overall planning by the state. By contract that the management right of the node will be handed back to the state after construction, but the developer can form their own property management to profit from the high-rise. Construction quality can be ensured, as the node is the entrance interface for the high-rise, and the developers can take advantage when constructing the node. The interconnected system of the node, the library and the commercial and living streets increase the commercial value of the offices and apartments above. Management right and maintenance of the nodes will be handed to a joint body of the chamber of commerce federation of trade unions to ensure the educational functions. Profits gained from the rent will be used in their own management and setting up an incubating fund for R&D projects of the micro businesses of the migrant workers.

In this way the system rethinks the relationship between the state, private real estate developments, enterprises and labour individuals and tries to explore the potential of a different development model.

detailed design

3rd floor plan

community library in relation to the nodes and living streets